It is a reality which can’t be stressed enough in professional tennis: Many of the big tournaments each season are played when the local weather is supremely hot and uncomfortable.
The Australian Open obviously qualifies as one such tournament. Wimbledon doesn’t always have brutally hot weather, but the early-July placement on the calendar does mean that the tournament is played at or near the hottest time of the year in suburban London. Miami is not played at the time of year which would be extremely overwhelming, so that tournament DOESN’T fit the above description. Yet, conditions in South Florida in late March and early April are still not what one would view as comfortable. Miami in January would be a much easier time for players to play that tournament.
The U.S. Open sometimes cools down at the very end of the fortnight in New York, but week one — carrying through the Labor Day holiday weekend at the USTA National Tennis Center — is usually hot and physically taxing for players who play long hardcourt slugfests in open-air conditions. (Ashe Stadium has dramatically increased the amount of shade available to players because of the construction of its very large roof, but other stadiums don’t have that same protection.)
Other than the Australian Open, the other two Masters/Premier 5/Premier Mandatory/bigger tournaments which regularly involve very hot and oppressive conditions are Canada and Cincinnati. This is the hardest hardcourt double to win on the professional tennis tours, harder than Indian Wells-Miami. One could legitimately say that Madrid and Rome might be the harder double to win than Canada-Cincy, but one needs to keep in mind that if Rafael Nadal did not play Barcelona each year and came to Madrid fresher, the Madrid-Rome double probably would have been a lot more attainable for him than it has been. We can debate that point all day, but tennis observers can generally agree:
Madrid-Rome and Canada-Cincy are extremely hard doubles to pull off.
This is where Sascha Zverev enters the conversation.
One of the greatest feats of sheer tennis stamina in 2018 was Zverev’s ability to make the finals of three consecutive tournaments played in three consecutive weeks, in Munich, Madrid and Rome. Zverev played the week before the Madrid-Rome double and still came very close to winning the Madrid-Rome double on top of Munich.
Making the finals of tournaments in three consecutive weeks recalled the accomplishments of 1970s competitors Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas, who rolled up stacks of titles and match wins by playing every week, anywhere in the world. That kind of scheduling doesn’t exist anymore for all the obvious reasons. It’s part of what made Zverev’s achievement so impressive.
Yet, after Zverev’s loss in Cincinnati to Robin Haase on Wednesday, it might have laid a trap — or if that phrasing seems too severe, let’s put it more gently: It might have created a misperception in the 21-year-old’s still-evolving mind: I can do that again in Washington, Toronto, and Ohio.
Say this much about Madrid and Rome in the middle weeks of May: Of all the majors/Masters/Premier 5/Premier Mandatory events on tour, Madrid and Rome fall much closer to moderate weather conditions than most. This isn’t Dubai or Doha for the WTA in February, or Bercy indoors for the ATP in early November, but the environment in Madrid and Rome is a lot more comfortable for players than the prominent tournaments played in North America and Australia. Madrid’s three main stadium courts all provide ample shade in daytime matches, at least to the extent that a player can stand in shade at one end of the court between points.
What is also worth pointing out about Madrid, especially in relationship to Zverev in 2018: Madrid also plays a lot of late-night matches with much cooler temperatures, and interestingly, Zverev played several such matches in noticeably mild conditions. He was exposed to very little sunshine in Madrid, complete with a 6:30 p.m. Sunday final at a tournament which plays its men’s final at a much later hour than most Masters 1000 tour stops. Was it still ZVERY impressive and eye-opening that Sascha made the Rome final and came close to beating Nadal, regardless of that detail? Absolutely. He still exceeded my expectations in Italy after his Madrid title.
Nevertheless, and in retrospect, it remains that if Zverev or any player aims to play three straight weeks and make three straight finals, he hit the scheduling jackpot in Madrid and Rome: Getting night matches in cool conditions — with a late-evening Sunday final in the middle tournament of the Munich-Madrid-Rome sequence — reduced Zverev’s exposure to the kinds of environments which make it harder to play three straight weeks. The abundance of night matches in tournaments not known for extreme weather was something I failed to account for. That was MY mistake.
In this North American summer, though, Zverev’s decision to play Washington AND Toronto AND Cincinnati caught up with him, and that is something which he might now understand.
To be clear, I won’t regard this as a scheduling mistake. No, players have to learn, and at 21, this is a learning experience, for reasons I have expressed earlier this month about Zverev at Tennis With An Accent. I won’t rehash what I have written before. What I will say is that Zverev had to play a lot more in daytime conditions in Washington, Canada and Cincy than he ever did in Madrid or Rome. Moreover, this North American swing takes place on a surface (hardcourts) which is tougher on the body than clay, and occurs at a latter stage of the season when accumulated tread on the tires makes it harder to power through tournaments. Federer skipped Toronto, Nadal pulled out of Cincy, and Murray hit a wall in Washington, having to pull out of Toronto. Yes, Zverev is much younger than those guys, but the point should still be imprinted firmly on the mind: Athletes have limits and must respect them.
These limits are clearly in evidence when considering two simple facts about Sascha Zverev:
A) The last two years, he has won Washington twice.
B) The last two years, he has won ZERO matches in Cincinnati.
Yes, one can make the case quite convincingly that this loss to Haase was not directly caused by fatigue. Sascha lost in Toronto on Friday and therefore had more turnaround time for Ohio. I get it. The argument makes sense and contains a considerable degree of truth when viewed through a narrow prism. I would not disagree with the idea that Zverev lost this match because of his tennis more than his body or stamina.
Yet, this is a complicated world, and part of a complicated world involves looking at issues from all angles, not just some. One can say that Zverev’s tennis, not his fitness, was primarily responsible for this result, and yet STILL say that had Zverev not played Washington, he probably would have won this match.
You might claim that those two statements are impossible to hold together, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. An athlete can lose primarily because of reason A (his quality of play wasn’t good enough) and yet suffer because of secondary consequences and effects of his choices (scheduling). Even though Zverev might feel his tennis, not his stamina, was the main reason for his loss to Haase — and again, I would not disagree with him if he felt that way — this point remains very hard to refute: Playing Washington does not put Zverev in a good position to do anything of note in Cincinnati. The results speak for themselves.
Underlying that last point is this larger realization about the different weather and match conditions in a North American summer compared to Europe in the second and third weeks of May. Severity of conditions, placement within the tennis season, and accumulated strain on the body make this North American foray more difficult if Washington (or in John Isner’s case, Atlanta, or in Fabio Fognini’s case, Los Cabos) precedes Canada and Cincinnati.
In closing, look at this article from Tennis Now before Zverev began his Washington tournament this year. Look at the ripped, lean body. Look at the images of a fit, hard-working athlete ready for combat. Zverev said a lot in the piece about how much work he had done, how much training he had put in, and how physically ready he was for this North American swing.
It was reasonable and understandable for Zverev to think this way. After all, his endurance and perseverance in the midst of blisters on his feet in Paris at the French Open — digging out consecutive five-set wins after being down two sets to one — changed his reputation on tour. The staying power which was so noticeably absent at the 2018 Australian Open was brought to the table in Paris. Zverev proved his point about being a fitter player and a better fighter. He doesn’t have to answer that question anymore. Improving that part of his holistic approach to tennis was important, so it is natural and logical that he focused on his physical readiness for North American hardcourts this summer.
Now, though, with Zverev still winless in Cincinnati, maybe the lesson will sink in that playing three straight weeks in a North American summer is Zvery different from the first three weeks of May in Europe. Zverev might indeed have lost to Robin Haase in Ohio because of his tennis more than anything else — I agree. Yet, the larger lesson of putting oneself in the best position to play well at the most important tournaments — Cincinnati more than Washington — is impossible to ignore.
Zverev’s evolution as a professional — which very much includes how he manages his tennis season — can now continue.